Helping children of divorceWritten by Martha Goudey
What's inside this article
Ten years ago my husband and I ended our marriage. Our small son, Michael, suffered through our bitter quarrels and our inability to avert the disaster that lay ahead. Neither of us had the Lord to help us, and two non-Christian counsellors recommended separation because of "irreconcilable differences." Michael became the innocent victim.
A year after our divorce, my ex-husband moved to Oregon, 1,500 miles away. Five-year-old Michael cried in my arms, "Why did Daddy leave?"
I took my son to a counsellor. During the counselling session, he turned all the sandbox figures face-down in the sand as the counsellor urged him to talk about the divorce. He drew a picture of our family with his father and me on one side, our pets in the centre and himself on the far edge. He was dressed in black and had a confused look on his face. When the counsellor tried to talk to him, Michael hung his head over the end of the couch upside down and giggled. A hurt little boy was crying for help.
We have a big job as parents, but as divorced parents, our job grows even bigger. Michael's healing would take a lot of time. In her book Helping Children Cope With Separation and Loss (The Harvard Common Press), Claudia Jewett says healing from major loss takes a minimum of two years but usually between three and five. How much time Michael's healing took would largely depend on my own healing and my willingness to let go of anger. I watch my son heal more every day, and I have learned much in the process about how divorced parents can help their kids.
Parents should lay aside their own hurts while listening to the pains of their children. Michael "talked" about his pain through the pictures he drew and the figures he placed in the sand. I listened and helped him put words to the pain he expressed through his actions. "You're really sad, aren't you? When do you feel that way the most?"
A parent can pick up a young child and hold him. With an older child, we can encourage conversation by listening, validating, affirming and giving feedback. We should guard against interrupting, putting words in his mouth or talking him out of his pain.
The biggest roadblock to attentive listening is our fear of our children's pain. It can make us unable to hear what they are saying. Look him in the eyes. Touch him. Let him know that you really hear.
When Michael says he misses his father, I know it's time to listen. I usually feel threatened that he misses his dad. Through practice, however, I've learned to quiet those inner voices and listen to the pain my son expresses. I say, "I'm sure you miss him. I'm sorry." Quiet tears fall from a little boy becoming a man, still filled with the pain of a divorce that tore his parents apart. These tears say, "I am powerless. I miss my daddy. Why can't you make it okay?" And I listen and stroke his 14-year-old head as I did his 12-year-old head, his 7-year-old head and his 4-year-old head. And I say, "I'm sorry."
Michael threw temper tantrums until age 10. These reactions kept me intimidated and off-balance. But what my son was asking for was a boundary for the out-of-control feelings he was experiencing. Because I was trying to compensate for his loss and because my own feelings were out of control, I was unable to provide the boundaries we needed.
As I dealt with my pain, I was able to help him with his. I provided clear boundaries that helped him get his emotions under control. When Michael was older, a counsellor assisted me in shedding my anger and helping my son to do the same. Both my son and I learned that anger held us in bondage and created bitterness. As we both learned more, stronger boundaries grew.
Tell the truth
When Michael was eight, I took him to an eight-week divorce-recovery group sponsored by a local church. The children attended classes upstairs while the parents met downstairs. Each week leaders led the children through a series of games and exercises to help them understand their feelings about the divorce. One exercise involved making "rose-coloured glasses."
The children made cardboard frames and pink-plastic lenses. Then they talked with the children about "seeing life through rose-coloured glasses," especially their desire to see their parents back together again. In fact, their parents weren't going to reconcile, and the leaders helped the children come to terms with that.
Michael did. The pain didn't go away, but he felt free from false expectations and crushed dreams. Upstairs, the parents learned how to reinforce the message that was being taught to their children. Each session opened the door to more truth, understanding and healing.
When Michael was 11, I realized that I had never asked his forgiveness for the stupid, hurtful things I had done. One day we sat down, and I shared those areas that I needed to ask his forgiveness. I had already asked his forgiveness for the divorce. But there were also times that I had yelled at him or lost control. I asked for his forgiveness for those things. A huge weight lifted from my shoulders when I said, "Will you forgive me?" I did not say, "If I hurt you, I'm sorry." Saying "I'm sorry" didn't say "I seek your forgiveness," nor did saying "If I hurt you" acknowledge the fact that I knew I had.
This took courage, but Michael respected me for doing it. After I had asked forgiveness for the big stuff and acknowledged, "Yes, I did that to you," it became easier to ask forgiveness for the day-to-day things like misplaced anger, an insensitive remark or impatience with his behaviour.
As a result, it has become easier for Michael to ask for forgiveness for his own shortcomings. He is growing into an adult who is able to acknowledge his own unwholeness and seek healing and forgiveness in his life – in spite of what he has been through.
Divorce is never an enjoyable road to travel. But with perseverance, it is possible to help guide our children through these rough places. Michael and I are doing it, and so can you.
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